Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.
From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.
For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.
Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.